Running With Scissors

at the Viaduct Theater

Great sociopolitical humor is a true challenge. Too much moral outrage leads to the sort of rambling ragefests that Lenny Bruce indulged in late in his career. But focusing solely on the ridiculous yields the pointless jokefests that have been the province of Saturday Night Live and countless other sketch shows, as performers aim for easy laughs: Clinton is fat and horny, George W. Bush is dim-witted and spoiled, Saddam Hussein has tacky taste in facial hair and interior decor…

Aristophanes created a blueprint for Western satire that balances these elements. And despite being rooted in the issues and personalities of fifth-century Athens, his works show a timeless understanding of human foibles, appetites, and vanities. Yet most stagings of his plays I’ve seen fall flat. Sometimes the adapter shows too much reverence for the original, failing to translate with sufficient verve and wit. And sometimes directors and performers rely too heavily on obvious gags, forgetting there should be sharply drawn characters behind the prosthetic phalluses. Before now, I’d seen only one production of Aristophanes that didn’t disappoint me: a smart, sparkling rendition of The Birds in the late 90s by Culture Clash, a west-coast Latino comic trio. After watching Lindsay Porter’s adaptation of Lysistrata, which she also directs, I can say I’ve seen two.

Porter places the war-weary world of Aristophanes’ original–plus a good deal of the naughty bits–in the context of our superficial contemporary culture. The first act, which is almost entirely her invention, establishes the reasons for the sex strike that comprises most of the original but here makes up the second act. In Porter’s back story, Lysistrata is a grieving widow isolated in her home with the ashes of her military-commander husband, Alex, who was blown up in an attack on his compound. There’s no end in sight for the 100-year war with Sparta, but most other Athenians distract themselves with spa treatments, shopping sprees, and tabloid television. (Porter is also largely responsible for the show’s cunning slide projections and video footage.) One particularly clever Grecian in-joke–echoing Aristophanes’ taste for in-jokes–is a promo for “Death From the Skies,” an investigative report on the freakish but true demise of Aeschylus, who died when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head.

In a subtle but telling contemporary critique, Porter makes Lysistrata’s best friends, homebody Myrhinne and sex kitten Kleonike, sympathetic to her plight as a widow but uncomfortable with her grief and anger–and shows how their aversion is mirrored by the Athenians’ inability to comprehend the human costs of a war fought far away. Tear-stained celebrity tell-alls notwithstanding, one of the hallmarks of our age is quick “closure” rather than Aristotelian catharsis. The best Kleonike can offer her anguished friend is a suggestion to petition against the war–a suggestion she knows is lame. Still, Lysistrata takes it up as a substitute for inertia. Meanwhile Myrhinne is focused on her children, including precocious daughter Olympia (played by Matt Kozlowski in moppet drag), who delivers a hilarious “what I learned in school today” lecture, complete with maps and wind-up soldiers, showing the war’s tangled history.

Eager to keep enthusiasm for the war stoked, the cynical Council of Athens decides to position soldiers as valorous sex symbols, not “Joe Ouzos who’d be living in trailer parks and bedding welfare mothers if they weren’t out fighting our war!” They crown telegenic Cosmo Helios (Joel Maisonet) the “Athenian Idol” and throw a sex-and-booze bon voyage party for him. (Keep in mind that Porter finished her script well before news of the hagiographic Jessica Lynch TV movie was announced.) Kleonike beds the hero-in-waiting the night before his departure for the front, so when he and his convoy are blown up before they see combat in Sparta she’s enraged, declaring at a war protest that “none of you pigs are ever going to get a piece of me” as long as the fighting continues.

Bingo. Lysistrata dumps demonstrations and petitions in order to organize a sex strike. After the first act, the play basically becomes Dr. Strangelove with dick jokes, including a musical number, “Man’s Best Friend,” featuring a trio of dancing phalluses. Still fighting the war that’s defined their lives, the engorged men of Athens–clueless councilmen, Machiavellian generals, and regular guys alike–try to cajole, plead, and threaten their abstemious womenfolk back to bed. Porter even includes a councilwoman, Hera Clitonopolis (the dynamic Alison Halstead), who comes up with most of the politicians’ media spins–and whose husband is denying her conjugal rights. Yianni (Michael Kass), the screaming queen who runs the spa where the ladies gather for Botox parties, likewise swears off sex with his boyfriend until the hostilities are ended.

Porter gets in a few digs at the left too. Lampito (Maia Morgan), the Spartan woman who joins the strike, is a slave acquired by Lysistrata in a well-meaning attempt to save her life. But as Lampito witheringly notes, her mistress gets “someone who will cook your meals and clean your house while you work on your liberal causes.” And an earnest hippie dude of the “Yo, babe, take a suck on my PC johnson but pronto” school tries to sweet-talk his way into one woman’s pants, perhaps taking to heart Joan Baez’s anti-Vietnam slogan: “Girls say yes to guys who say no.”

One could argue that staging an antiwar play right now is an easy choice, but Running With Scissors planned this production 18 months ago. What truly makes it work is Porter’s incisive skewering of the self-loathing, isolating shallowness of consumer culture, particularly when it comes to keeping women insecure about their ability to attract men. She also sends up the media’s rapacious need to jump on a news story. As Lysistrata and her cohorts storm the seat of power, a television reporter breathlessly announces coverage of “The Acropolis Under Siege: Minute Seven.” War or no war, these are worthy targets, and this Lysistrata hits them hard.

Among Porter’s cast of 15 are many standouts, many playing multiple roles. Especially good are Karin McKie, particularly as news commentator Sappho B. Toklas; Lily Mojekwu’s horny but sly Kleonike; and Sonal Shah’s sweetly befuddled but surprisingly steely Myrhinne. In one of the highlights of the second act, Myrhinne’s good-hearted husband (Sean Cooper) sneaks into the Acropolis and offers his wife moral support, convincing her that she’s beautiful without makeup and reminding her of her own bravery and integrity: she once stood up to drunken frat boys who were making fun of a crippled war veteran. Lysistrata herself isn’t a particularly warm character, and I think that’s both intentional and right–like Antigone, she’s something of a self-righteous prig. I do wish Heather Hartley had found a bit more depth in some of the character’s grieving soliloquies, especially since her husband’s death is the framing device for Porter’s script.

But to demand that Lysistrata’s calls for peace be couched in cozier terms is to fall prey to the same mind-numbing insistence on inoffensiveness that marks so much of contemporary life. And Porter proves again and again that she views our culture with a jaundiced eye: she provides plenty of hard belly laughs, yet keeps in focus Aristophanes’ vision of prolonged armed conflict as a somber zero-sum game.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ann Boyd.